Born: Laszlo Loewenstein in Rosenberg, Hungary, 26 June 1904. Education: Studied acting in Vienna. Family: Married 1) Cecilia Lovovsky, 1934; 2) Kaaren Verne, 1951 (divorced); 3) Anna Marie Brenning. Career: Stage debut in Zurich, and also acted in Breslau and other German-language cities: in Galsworthy's Society in Zurich, and in Die Pionere von Ingolstadt at the Volksbühne, Berlin, 1928; 1931—played a child murderer in his film debut, M; 1933—left Germany with rise of Nazis, and made English-language film debut The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934; over the next ten years made films in Hollywood for Columbia, 20th Century-Fox (including the Mr. Moto series beginning 1937), and Warner Brothers; free-lance after 1947, often in horror films; 1951—directed and acted in Der Verlorene in Germany. Died: 24 March 1964.
Films as Actor:
M (Fritz Lang) (as Hans Beckert); Die Bomben auf Monte Carlo (The Bombardment of Monte Carlo; Monte Carlo Madness) (Schwarz) (as Pawlitschenk); Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (The Thirteen Trunks of Mr. O.F.) (Granowsky) (as Stix)
Fünf von der Jazzband (Five of the Jazzband) (Engel); Der weisse Dämon (The White Demon) (Gerron) (as hunchback); F.P. 1 antwortet nicht (F.P. 1 Doesn't Answer) (Siodmak) (as Johnny); Schuss im Morgengrauen (A Shot at Dawn) (Zeisler) (as Klotz)
Was Frauen träumen (What Women Dream) (von Bolvary) (as Füssli); Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Opponent) (Katscher) (as Henry Pless); De haut à bas (Pabst) (as beggar); The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock) (as Abbott)
Mad Love (Freund) (as Dr. Gogol); Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg) (as Raskolnikov)
The Secret Agent (Hitchcock) (as General)
Crack-Up (St. Clair) (as Col. Gimpy); Nancy Steele Is Missing (Marshall) (as Prof. Sturm); Think Fast, Mr. Moto (Foster) (as Mr. Moto); Lancer Spy (Ratoff) (as Maj. Sigfried Gruning); Thank You, Mr. Moto (Foster) (as Mr. Moto)
Mr. Moto's Gamble (Tinling) (as Mr. Moto); Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (Foster) (as Mr. Moto); I'll Give a Million (Walter Lang) (as Louie); Mysterious Mr. Moto (Foster) (as Mr. Moto)
Danger Island (Leeds) (as Mr. Moto); Mr. Moto's Last Warning (Foster) (as Mr. Moto); Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (Foster) (as Mr. Moto)
Strange Cargo (Borzage) (as Cochon/M'sieu Pig); I Was an Adventuress (Ratoff) (as Polo); Island of Doomed Men (Barton) (as Stephen Danel); Stranger on the Third Floor (Ingster) (as Stranger); You'll Find Out (Butler) (as Fenninger)
The Face behind the Mask (Florey) (as James Szabo); Mr. District Attorney (Morgan) (as Mr. Hyde); They Met in Bombay (Brown) (as Capt. Chang); The Maltese Falcon (Huston) (as Joel Cairo)
All through the Night (Sherman) (as Pepi); Invisible Agent (Marin) (as Baron Ikito); The Boogie Man Will Get You (Landers) (as Dr. Lorentz); Casablanca (Curtiz) (as Ugarte)
Background to Danger (Walsh) (as Zalenkoff); The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (as Fritz Bercovy); The Cross of Lorraine (Garnett) (as Sgt. Berger)
Passage to Marseille (Curtiz) (as Marius); The Mask of Dimitrios (Negulesco) (as Cornelius Leyden); Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra) (as Dr. Einstein); The Conspirators (Negulesco) (as Jan Bernazsky); Hollywood Canteen (Daves) (as guest)
Hotel Berlin (Godfrey) (as Johannas Koenig); Confidential Agent (Shumlin) (as Contreras)
Three Strangers (Negulesco) (as West); Black Angel (Neill) (as Marko); The Chase (Ripley) (as Gino); The Verdict (Siegel) (as Victor Emmric); The Beast with Five Fingers (Florey) (as Hilary Cummins)
My Favorite Brunette (Nugent) (as Kismet)
Casbah (Berry) (as Slimane)
Rope of Sand (Dieterle) (as Toady)
Quicksand (Pichel) (as Nick)
Double Confession (Annakin)
Beat the Devil (Huston) (as O'Hara); Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer) (as Conseil)
Congo Crossing (Pevney) (as Col. Arragas); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson) (as Japanese Steward); Meet Me in Las Vegas (Rowland) (as guest)
The Buster Keaton Story (Sheldon) (as Kurt Bergner); Silk Stockings (Mamoulian) (as Brankov); The Story of Mankind (Allen) (as Nero); The Sad Sack (Marshall) (as Abdul); Hell Ship Mutiny (Sholem and Williams) (as Lamouet)
The Big Circus (Newman) (as Skeeter)
Scent of Mystery (Cardiff) (as Smiley)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Allen) (as Emery)
"The Black Cat" ep. of Tales of Terror (Corman) (as Montresor); Five Weeks in a Balloon (Allen) (as Ahmed)
The Raven (Corman) (as Dr. Bedlo)
The Comedy of Terrors (Tourneur) (as Felix Gillie); Muscle Beach Party (Asher) (as Mr. Strangdour); The Patsy (Lewis) (as Morgan Heywood)
Film as Director:
Der Verlorene (The Lost One) (+ co-sc, ro as Dr. Karl Rothe)
On LORRE: books—
Sennett, Ted, Masters of Menace: Greenstreet and Lorre, New York, 1979.
Youngkin, Stephen D., James Bigwood, and Raymond G. Cabana, Jr., The Films of Peter Lorre, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1982.
Suehla, Gary J., editor, Peter Lorre, Beaverton, 1999.
On LORRE: articles—
Luft, Herbert, "Peter Lorre," in Films in Review (New York), May 1960.
Dyer, P. J., "Fugitive from Murder," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1964.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), November 1980.
Cinema (W. Germ), March 1984.
Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), no. 1, 1985.
Film Dope (Nottingham), February 1987.
Smith, J., "Mad Love!" in Filmfax (Evanston), March/April 1989.
Molina Foix, J.A., "Peter Lorre," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1996.
Potes, A., "Peter Lorre," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1996.
* * *
"I want to escape . . . to escape from myself! . . . But it's impossible. I can't. I can't escape . . . Who knows what it feels like to be me? How I'm forced to act. . . ." Cringing, pathetic, grotesque, a giveaway M (for murderer) still chalked on his back, the cornered child-killer makes his agonized plea to a grim-faced jury of criminals. Peter Lorre's first film performance (barring an unconfirmed bit part or two), it was also one of his finest, and made him internationally famous. Yet at the same time it trapped him. Hollywood, having seen Lang's film, waited for Lorre to arrive, slapped an indelible M (for melodrama) on his back, and set him to 30 years of playing sad-eyed psychopaths. Throughout his subsequent career, the lines from M echo in ironic commentary.
But Lorre was also trapped by his own utterly distinctive physique. Squat, stocky, round-faced, at once pitiable and terrifying, he seemed a textbook illustration of schizophrenia: the eyes, liquid and soulful, that could abruptly bulge with murderous rage or ungovernable terror; the voice, a gentle middle-European whisper, pitching without warning into a shrill fury of frustration and hate; the cigarette drooping from a twitching mouth; the caged, prowling walk, driven by some intolerable restlessness of spirit. Otis Ferguson described him as "childlike, beautiful, unfathomably wicked, always hinting at things it would not be good to know." Small wonder if he found himself cast as madmen and murderers.
His first appearance on a Hollywood screen, as Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, gave fair warning of what was to come. Leaning forward from the darkness of a theater box, moon-round face totally bald above a fur collar and neatly bisected by shadow, Lorre gazed with depraved desire at the spectacle of Frances Drake being tortured on a wheel. Although one of his better films, as it turned out, it pushed him over the edge of self-parody, using (as the New York Times remarked of a later movie) "his tricks but not his talent."
Lorre himself, longing to extend his range, always claimed that his true bent lay in comedy, and his most enjoyable roles were certainly those in which comic and sinister were finely balanced. As Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon, querulous and frizzy-haired, with his spats and gardenia-scented calling cards, he made one of a memorable gang of villains (along with Greenstreet, Mary Astor, and Elisha Cook), just occasionally allowing the killer to glare through the fop. His two roles for Hitchcock drew on a similar vein of quirky ambiguity: the kindly, soft-spoken nihilist in The Man Who Knew Too Much, so good with children; and the flamboyantly overdressed "Hairless Mexican" in Secret Agent, vain and temperamental, given to sudden outbursts of irrational fury. Lorre could effect the switch, from genial to chilling, with utmost subtlety—a twitch of the scalp, a spasm briefly contorting the mouth, and his shy, vulnerable face would smooth into an inhuman mask.
After The Maltese Falcon Warners teamed him eight more times with Greenstreet. They acted well together, effectively playing off Greenstreet's vast urbanity against Lorre's scuttering nervousness, even (perhaps especially) when, as in The Mask of Dimitrios or The Verdict, Lorre played hero to the other's villain. The Mr. Moto series also allowed him a rare escape from evil—routine Fox program-fodder, redeemed by Lorre's resilient wit. Otherwise it was mostly psychopaths, spies, and sadists, though Lorre could bring individuality to the most hackneyed parts, transforming them (in David Thomson's words) "into portraits of delicate, deranged kindness, pushed to the point of frantic malice."
Privately, Lorre was known as a charming man, gentle and intelligent. In later life, troubled by ill-health and overweight, and hurt by the undeserved failure of his sole attempt at directing, Der Verlorene, he wandered with resigned sadness through some disastrously bad movies. He was, Peter John Dyer wrote, "a victim of his own precocious fame . . . too intractably unique in accent, form and expression for producers to reorient their attitude towards him. He was too obviously nearly mad. He was too dangerously sane."